For a Villa fan, 1983 was a cruel year to be born. Too late for the club’s greatest party, when the heavily-fancied Bayern Munich side featuring Paul Breitner, Karl Heinz Rummenigge and co, were put to the sword on that balmy night in Rotterdam, when Villa joined the exclusive list of English sides who have lifted the European Cup. (That’s once more than Arsenal or Man City for anyone keeping count).
“Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There’s a good ball in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be and it is! It’s Peter Withe!”
Brian Moore’s commentary of Peter Withe’s winning goal was recently daubed in ten foot high letters on the North Stand of Villa Park. They’re hardly Shakespearean, but the words now provide the backdrop for games watched by Villa die-hards accommodated in the Holte End opposite.
If intended to strike fear into the hearts of visitors, the stirring soundbite rather serves to remind Villa fans that the club’s glory days are disappearing, along with the bubble perm and the shell suit, into the mists of time.
Over the past five years, home crowds have been treated to visiting teams from up and down the land gleefully pillaging points from B6, and the current team are a far cry from their forebears, leaving a growing concern among the Villa faithful that this could be the season the luck runs out.
This isn’t to say Villa aren’t setting records in modern times: in the 2014/15 season they won just five home games, and on the first of February notched a record 612 consecutive minutes of football without scoring a single goal as they were annihilated 5-0 at Arsenal. In the same season, the Claret-and-Blues put together a record run of six consecutive defeats, only to break their own record with seven on the bounce a couple of months later. Paul Lambert gave way to Tim Sherwood, whose gilet was barely on the managerial coat peg for ten minutes before another club record (noticing a theme?) – the worst ever start to a top flight campaign featuring another run of seven defeats – saw him axed in favour of Remi ‘next Wenger’ Garde.
The Villans are now bottom of the league with just one Premier League win out of (an unlucky) 13 games, having hit the back of the net just 10 times, while 24 goals have flown in the other way, giving them the worst goal difference in the league. Just five points have been chalked on the board, leaving Villa five points from safety, and with the past four seasons yielding finishes of 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th respectively, could five be the unlucky number? Will the brummies be punching the likes of Deepdale and Ashton Gate into the Sat Nav next season? Unfortunately, my feeling is – yes, they will.
So where has it all gone wrong?
Let’s rewind to 2006. A brave new dawn was breaking at Villa Park. “Deadly” Doug Ellis had finally sold up to Randy Lerner, with the American’s arrival rumoured to be accompanied by great suitcase-loads of dollars. Following Ellis down the Villa Park rubbish chute was the insipid David O’Leary, whose ‘fickle’ snipe at the Villa fans was the final nail in the coffin of an always strained relationship.
Into the hotseat came Martin O’Neill, up until that point a man with something of a midas reputation. Let’s not forget, Alec Ferguson had tipped to be his replacement as Man Utd boss. The world suddenly seemed Villa’s Oyster, and three consecutive sixth-place finishes quickly followed. The third of these concluded in a breathless four horse race for the final Champions League spot with Liverpool, Spurs and on-the-up Man City. Visits to Wembley were also inked into the Villa diary with a league cup final against Man Utd, and an FA Cup semi against Chelsea.
So far, so good, but that season Villa failed on all fronts, surrendering a lead in the League Cup final against United, and losing out to Spurs in the race for fourth while Chelsea made light work of the Claret and Blues in the FA Cup. Sixth place was consolation enough, reminding the fans how far the club had come, but history would show this to be a turning point. We’ll never know exactly what went on behind the scenes in the close season. Some say the final straw was the sale of James Milner to Manchester City behind Martin O’Neill’s back. Whatever the reason, the Irishman resigned just days before the 2010/11 season opener. Villa fans were nervous. Meanwhile the shockwaves of the global financial crash hit Randy Lerner, who suddenly lost his sporting mojo. The ambitious squad building was quickly replaced by a policy of buying young potential from the less formative Dutch, Belgian and (later) French leagues, and instructions were issued to slash the wage bill.
With little time to repalce O’Neill, a nondescript year of Gerard Houllier preceded the ultimate dystopia for Villa fans, as Alex McLeish was levered into the dugout from arch-rivals Birmingham City. The arrival of McLeish caused a small revolt at Villa Park. His association with the Blues didn’t help, but Villa fans were quick to point out that it was his reputation for the bucolic physical long-ball game which had them perturbed. And so began the ‘skin of the teeth’ years that have brought them into the present era of heavily managed expectations.
But, hang on, I hear you cry. Villa have come close to relegation in the past few years, but always found enough to cling on. What’s so different this year?
Basically, it’s because Villa are now devoid of the characteristics that have saved them in the past. Down the years, the club has been defined by key players at the back and up front with the ability and the character to put in big performances when it really counted. As Villa threw themselves in front of the Goodison express train during the most-played top flight fixture this weekend (0-4 at Everton), Tom Rostance of BBC Sport mused “Ugo Ehiogu, Gareth Southgate, Paul McGrath, Shaun Teale, any one of them would have prevented this goal.” Add Olof Mellberg, Martin Laursen, Wilfred Bouma, and Ron ‘I’d-rather-play-for-nobody-than-Aston-Villa’ Vlaar to the list of Holte End bouncers allowing its occupants to eat their balti pies in peace over the years and you’ll understand fans’ frustration at Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Ciaran Clark, none completely devoid of talent, defending with all the impregnability of an Emmental colander.
Meanwhile, up top there’s usually been someone who knows where the goal is. Sure, they had dips in form, but Villa fans knew that Christian Benteke, Darren Bent, John Carew, Juan Pablo Angel, Dion Dublin, Dean Saunders and even Milan Baros could all be match-winners when the chips were down. But even on a six-inch luxury shag-pile of chips, the current cast of Rudy Gestede, Jordan Ayew and Gabriel Agbonlahor have begun the season as shy of the goal as a five-year-old girl of her classmates on the first day of school, notching just five goals between them.
The frustrating thing for Villa fans is they really believe, in the words of Steve Allen, that this could be the start of something big. Villa CEO Tom Fox is a former Arsenal Chief Commercial Officer, and his cosy chats with Arsene Wenger are reportedly the creative force behind Remi Garde’s appointment. Despite the hammering at Everton, the keen-eyed will notice Villa have performed a hand-break turn in playing style, working hard to get closer in midfield, taking fewer touches and moving through teams more effectively rather than, well, pretty much no tactics at all from Tim Sherwood. But it’s always easy to get kicked when you’re down, and when the luck is against you, things have a habit of staying that way, so the challenge facing Garde is to keep the Claret in the Blues in the Premier League long enough to develop some of the raw talent in his side. The likes of Jack Grealish, Jordan Veretout and Adama Traore have the calibre to be world class, while string-pullers Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sanchez will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief as their passing sights are shortened.
But it’s hard to turn into Arsenal overnight, and without a dramatic reversal of fortunes, Villa could find themselves increasingly desperate to grind out results in any way possible. Will they stick to their guns? Fans will see emergency investment in January as crucial and frustration could turn to anger against chairman Lerner if he continues to skimp on the squad while not budging from his selling price, some three times more than what he paid back in 2006. “Cough up, or sell up” is the cry, but while the focus is on the balance sheet rather than the score sheet, Villa fans may as well face the reality that relegation is becoming a genuine prospect.